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After They're Gone, Understanding An 'Exclusive Love'

The purview and significance of the best memoirs extend well beyond the writer — a relief, since most people's lives aren't nearly as interesting as they think. The focus of Johanna Adorjan's An Exclusive Love is not herself but her paternal grandparents. Despite its schmaltzy title, her memoir is a haunting, beautifully composed book that aims to understand why this elegant couple — Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivors who fled Communist Budapest in 1956 and settled successfully in Denmark — committed double-suicide on Oct. 13, 1991, when the author was 20.

Like Francine du Plessix Gray's Them, Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes and Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost, An Exclusive Love offers a fascinating new angle on the Holocaust filtered through the perspective of survivors' progeny. But rather than a full-scale family history, Adorjan's spare little masterpiece resurrects her adored grandparents with a two-pronged approach: imagining their last day down to the smallest details, and researching their past to trace the roots of their decision to die together on their own terms.

Her quest takes her to Budapest to meet her grandmother's ever-critical best friend, and to Denmark to visit her grandparents' old house and a doctor friend who knew of their plan. She questions her father and aunt as tactfully as possible, and visits Mauthausen, the category III ("extermination through labor") concentration camp in Austria where her grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon, was marched after the Germans invaded Hungary in 1944. (She is nonplussed by groups of texting teenagers.) She learns that her grandmother's parents were shot by Hungarian Nazis on the banks of the Danube toward the end of the war, and that her grandmother first considered suicide in 1945 at the specter of being left widowed at 25 with an infant son — the author's father, born soon after the Nazis seized Budapest.

In imagining what her grandparents' feelings and actions might have been on their last day, Adorján hits upon a powerful dramatic structure that builds from the quotidian to the shocking.

Voice is key in a memoir, and Adorjan, cultural editor of a German newspaper and daughter of a classical musician, hits just the right notes in this well-tempered literary instrument (which has been beautifully translated by Anthea Bell). She's as adept at delving into questions about national and religious identity as evoking her grandmother's temperamental insecurity and cigarette-smoke-and-Guerlain-infused scent. Raised in Munich by her German mother and Hungarian-born, assimilated-Jewish/baptized-Protestant, Danish father, Adorjan asks, "Typically Jewish: does such a frame of mind exist?"

As for her grandparents' motivations for suicide, she wonders whether her 82-year-old grandfather, already terminally ill, and her still hale 71-year-old grandmother chose to die together because of a pact made 50 years earlier. If so, was that solemn promise undertaken out of great love or even greater fear—"A woman's fear of being unloved, alone, a burden on others, perhaps sick and frail herself some day?"

In imagining what her grandparents' feelings and actions might have been on their last day, Adorjan hits upon a powerful dramatic structure that builds from the quotidian to the shocking. She paints an eerily homey picture of her grandmother methodically cleaning the house, winterizing her rosebushes and wrapping gifts (heirlooms) for the family. The narrative crescendos to the final schedule found among their papers: a step-by-step procedure culled from Final Exit, a practical guide to suicide they went to great lengths to procure — 6 p.m., tea and toast; 7 p.m., anti-emetic; 7:30 p.m., toxic nightcap of pills. Sensitive, intelligent and profoundly moving, An Exclusive Love will leave you stunned.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.